Last Tuesday was the Latino electorate’s coming out party. For the first time, Latino voters were the deciding factor in a presidential race; support from over 70 percent of Latino voters, comprising over 10 percent of the electorate, gave President Obama the edge he needed to win.

Now the Beltway is abuzz with talk of immigration reform in 2013, as some conservatives come to their senses about the need to compromise. 

But, while voters wait eagerly for a much-needed federal solution to materialize, they should look to the local level for a model, and a harbinger, of what is to come. They need look no further than Suffolk County, New York, which just passed the first pro-immigrant policy in the country since Tuesday’s election. 

For years, immigration reform has become a bad word in Washington, because, as in Suffolk County, restrictionists hijacked the national debate by taking advantage of popular fears of demographic change

- D. Altschuler and T. Oshiro

Last Wednesday, Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone signed Executive Order 10, which guarantees translation and interpretation services to limited-English proficient (LEP) residents in county government offices. In superstorm Sandy’s aftermath, the county adopted this policy to ensure effective communication with residents in all agencies —from police precincts to social service and health centers. This measure mirrors similar policies in New York State and New York City, but it makes Suffolk County among the country’s first suburban counties with a comprehensive language access solution.

Executive Order 10 exemplifies efficient, responsive governance, but it would have been unthinkable only a year ago. Under prior County Executive Steve Levy, myriad policy proposals targeted undocumented immigrants and fostered what the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) deemed a “climate of fear.” In 2008, Ecuadorian immigrant Marcelo Lucero paid the ultimate price in this xenophonobic atmosphere —he was murdered by a gang of marauding teenagers who sought out Latinos to attack.

How did Suffolk County move so quickly from being an anti-immigrant haven to passing one of the country’s first suburban language access policies?

One key reason: the Latino vote. Suffolk, like much of the United States, has become much more diverse, with immigrants now comprising over 15 percent of its population. At first, this growth produced xenophobia, which irresponsible politicians fueled and capitalized on.  

But, increasingly, those immigrants have become voters. In the past two election cycles, our organizations —the Long Island Civic Engagement Table and Make the Road New York— and allies have been a major part of this, providing naturalization assistance, registering 4,500 new voters, and mobilizing approximately 40,000 voters. First, in 2011 the county’s new electoral bloc contributed to the victory of a new leader, Steve Bellone, who had promised to support and value them. Last week, Latino voters appeared to play an important role in the closely contested re-election of Rep. Tim Bishop.

Politicians have taken note. No longer do we hear the same anti-immigrant appeals from years past —even one of Mr. Levy’s former acolytes backed away from his previous positions. Meanwhile, the new County Executive has expressed his commitment to embracing diversity and preventing discrimination in all forms, while working with our organizations and allies to pass substantive policy. 

The result: a new climate where responsible leaders working with community organizations can forge effective policy that promotes immigrant integration. Executive Order 10 signals a transition from the days of scapegoating immigrants to a new era of forging policy to make government services more accessible to 120,000 LEP Suffolk residents, improving public safety and government efficiency for all.

Suffolk County may well be a bellwether for the nation. For years, immigration reform has become a bad word in Washington, because, as in Suffolk County, restrictionists hijacked the national debate by taking advantage of popular fears of demographic change. But just as community organizations and labor unions have worked to expand and mobilize thousands of Latino and immigrant voters in Suffolk, national allies have mobilized millions nationwide.

And just as Suffolk politicians have woken up Latino voters’ power, so too are certain notorious restrictionists, including Rep. John Boehner and Sean Hannity. With the recent presidential election providing the ultimate demographic reality check, comprehensive immigration reform is possible for the first time in years. 

With politicians across the political spectrum wide awake to Latino and immigrant voters’ electoral power, America has the opportunity to do at the national level what Suffolk has just done at the county level: craft substantive policy that helps immigrants, makes government more accessible, and makes us all safer. 

Comprehensive immigration reform is the only choice. Our country needs a permanent solution that enables eleven million undocumented immigrants to emerge from the shadows and recognizes their humanity and economic contributions. And we need to revamp our immigration system to attract workers in sectors ranging from information technology to agriculture. Without this, immigrant communities and the economy will suffer.

Following Tuesday’s historic election, the President and Congress must heed the Latino electorate and work together to forge a comprehensive immigration solution.  In America as in Suffolk County, a rapidly changing electorate means that immigration issues should no longer be a political “third rail.” Instead, politicians must adopt a new approach to immigrant communities—characterized by welcoming and respect—that is not just good policy, but good politics.

Daniel Altschuler is the Coordinator of the Long Island Civic Engagement Table. Theo Oshiro is the Deputy Director of Make the Road New York.

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